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By Barry Parker – Repatriation of seafarers has been one of the most vexing issues facing the maritime industry throughout 2020, as Covid-19 has ravaged the world.
Port States, however well intentioned, enacted a panoply of inconsistent and sometimes non-sensical measures that led to mariners being marooned on vessels well beyond their sign-off dates. Regulators in the aviation sphere, were- in turn, talking past the maritime officials, so that air travel, and the impediments for mariners in transit, also emerged as a major constraint.
As of late September, when the seafarer crisis gained recognition at the United Nations’ (virtual) meeting of the General Assembly, an estimated 400,000 seafarers were stranded- mainly onboard vessels past their contracted dates, and also beyond the time maximums mandated by the Maritime Labor Convention (MLC, which came into force in 2013). Flag states (countries where ships are registered and are the conduit for execution of MLC dictates) have also tried to facilitate repatriations; it goes without saying that this whole frustrating business, where numerous arms of dozens of governments, spread out over multiple continents, is very complicated.
The IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), with wide ranging remits that, importantly, encompass manning rules on ships (through the medium of the MLC), has now just finished its 102nd session (MSC 102). In a sign of the times, this confab was held virtually. The Committee approved a circular containing what the IMO described as “an important reference set of protocols to ensure safe ship crew changes and travel …recognizing the industry-developed protocols, which set out general measures and procedures designed to ensure that ship crew changes and travel can take place safely during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Some locations have been more seafarer-friendly than others. The IMO data dissemination platform, the Global Integrated Shipping Information System (GISIS), will now include “…Up-to-date information on national focal points and on ports which facilitate crew changes.” Such information had been maintained on an adhoc basis by various crewing agencies and ship managers.
Key to the new Protocols is that they: “…emphasize the need for Governments to designate seafarers as key workers, providing an essential service….” With such a designation, closed doors are opened and movements, including repatriations (or bringing out fresh crew) can be hastened. During the past months, the IMO had issued a set of circulars which had provided recommended frameworks for mariners joining and leaving vessels. The IMO describes these new Protocols as a living document, which might evolve to keep in step with the pandemic- which is now in what many call the “second wave” that may lead to a new set of challenges for travelers.
Simple things matter too. Even in normal times, travelers, and those serving them, have been aided by symbols on documents, on luggage, and at certain gateways and within passenger terminals, that smooth their passages through. Another aspect of the MSC meeting will be the development of an insignia applicable to mariners in transit, that would be recognized by other organizations including the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which deals with airports and air travel. The IMO says: “Such a logo will have a longer-term benefit by guiding seafarers to services which should ultimately support better safety outcomes.”
The challenges for the IMO, with the pandemic (or with any matters, really) are that its successes are only as good as the timeliness and effectiveness of its Member States in implementation of “guidance” (or outright measures) into practice. But this just completed work from the MSC will go a long way towards better coordination with other agencies, and with governments. In so doing, the “humanitarian crisis” and “economic crisis”- as commenters from all parts of the shipping business have described the issues of seafarer transport on both human well-being and the vital flows of maritime commerce, will be much closer to a solution.
Read More from Barry Parker: IMO Charting Passage Plan for Reducing Shipping’s ‘Carbon Intensity’
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